Modernism, Postmodernism, and
Latin American Literature

Review by

Liza Ann Acosta

Pennsylvania State University

Copyright (c) 1997 by Liza Ann Acosta, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Larsen, Neil. Reading North by South: On Latin American Culture and Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. 256 pgs. $18.95.

  1. Neil Larsen's Reading North by South: On Latin American Culture and Politics investigates the complexities of reading Latin American literature through the High-modernist, Hemingwayesque eyeglasses of the "North American Academy." Through each of the essays contained in this volume (grouped thematically around polemical topics and arranged according to date of composition), Larsen aims to elucidate the problematic of how "northern" readers interpret Latin American texts. This he proposes to analyze from a "quasi-autobiographical" standpoint, by reflecting on his own and his generation's initiation into Latin American literature with the available translations of "boom" writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. Even if not apparent on a first reading, Larsen's divagations on postmodernism, cultural studies, post-colonialism, and other such "-isms," center on the basic premise of a readerly "crisis of self-authorization."

  2. A provocative introduction attempts to account for the complex relationships between the "northern interest" and a "a larger movement--and narrative--of decolonization" that sought to legitimize Latin American texts during a time of social and political upheaval (the 60's, Vietnam War, Cold War era) as long as they did not menace the "high modernist canon." Larsen observes how the reader of the 60's, himself included, authorized his or her reading on a contradictory premise, a "canonical decolonization," a process that Larsen manages to trace from the boom literature to an anti-boom or counter-canonical literature, inevitably resulting in the emergence of the testimonial. In order to illustrate the biases of the North American Academy still trying to define the "locus of literary value," Larsen proceeds to evaluate three notable essays on testimonial theory by Goerge Yúdice, John Beverley, and Doris Sommer. By way of introduction, Larsen succeeds in generating a multitude of engaging questions, especially in this cursory treatment of testimonial literature and its relationship to the crisis of self-authorization, but unfortunately leaves these questions only half-way answered.

  3. However, the two essays that comprise the section titled 'Occupation Texts' seem like an auspicious beginning. "Teaching Caribbean Texts" ascertains the problems encountered in teaching a course in 'revolutionary' Caribbean literature. "What does it mean to predicate a text, an author, or a tradition as 'revolutionary'?" Larsen inquires, and his answer leads him to set forth "specific pedagogical and curricular measures" such as the selection of news articles on the U.S. invasion and occupation of Grenada. Quoting a Newsweek article in which a medical student's inability to tell a Grenadian from a Cuban and the reporter's/editor's seeming inability to acknowledge the obvious mistake exemplifies how the colonized Caribbean is portrayed by the North American journalist: "Except for Cubans, of course, West Indians do not fight wars, at least not the epic kind" (35). "People without History: Central America in the Literary Imagination of the Metropolis" offers penetrating insights into the portrayal of El Salvador and Nicaragua in Hollywood films and contemporary journalistic fiction. In this essay, Larsen continues to dissect the role of the "reader journalist" as interpreter of a world essentially "without History," as reader of a "'Nicaragua', 'El Salvador', 'Vietnam,' [which] are essentially just 'places on the map,' spaces empty of history" (44).

  4. Perhaps the most thought-provoking essay in the book is "The Boom Novel and the Cold War in Latin America." After expounding on the almost useless effort to produce a "theory of modernism," Neil Larsen searches for the connection between "high modernism" (not Latin American modernismo) and anti-communist politics during the Cold War. Larsen concludes that several studies find a tendency in the cultural and literary institutions in the "western part of the Cold War" to canonize works as modernist because of their apolitical position (66). According to Larsen, "the politics of the Cold War do not create modernism. . . . But it bears considering whether or not it is the politics of the Cold War that create institutional and cultural forces that in turn have inculcated the creed of modernist consubstantiality with contemporary life" (66). The questions Larsen proposes to answer deal with the correspondence between aesthetical political change in the US and Latin America and the correlation between the ideology of the Cold War (the elevation of anti-communism) and the canonization of Latin American modernism, or the Boom.

  5. The use of the word "modernism" in this essay is problematic and controversial. For Larsen, "modernismo would have to be deemed a pre- or at best proto-modernist phenomenon, if the more Eurocentric or metropolitan designation is maintained. Vanguardismo probably comes closest to translating the English term" (67). The "true Latin American modernism" is, to Larsen, the Boom, what he calls "'the product of a fiction that had gone before' but even more so as the 'climax and consummation of Latin American Modernism'" (67). But what modernism is he refering to, and why maintain the more "eurocentric designation" throughout this essay in a book which seeks precisely to undermine such imperial reading?

  6. More controversial still is his conclusion that a moment of modernist historical realism does not exist in Latin America with the exception of the Jorge Amado of the 40's and 50's. Larsen proposes that Amado's Gabriela, cravo e canela is the first novel of the "boom":"there can be, to my mind, no doubt about the novel's distinctively Cold War modernist subtext: above all, the careful retreat from the objectives of social or socialist realism and the avoidance of any open signs of political engagement" (77). To reread the Boom through Amado gives us, Larsen argues, a clearer picture of what the "boom generation" was risking politically. In addition, to read Gabriela as a "boom" novel breaks the myth that has been created of a modernist and Latin American essence.

  7. The essays grouped under 'Uncivil Society' reflect upon what Larsen calls the "crisis in hegemony" and its relationship to the rise of authoritarian forms of state power as evidenced in the military rules in Argentina and Brazil. Using as texts the events that surrounded Argentina's hosting of the World Cup in 1978, Larsen is able to demonstrate how the military dictatorship sought to legitimize itself to the rest of the world and to the Argentinians themselves through the manipulation of a popular sporting event. Larsen analyzes the issue in all of its complexity by describing as its sociological and ideological problematic the "absence of civil society." Larsen also examines this "crisis in hegemony" in his observations on Brazilian culture and politics in the following essay, "Hegemony or Ideology?"--an examination that is in reality a praiseful assessment of Roberto Schwarz's critical production on the same subject.

  8. Returning to the main idea of "crisis in self-authorization," the abstraction "America" gets due attention in the section appropriately titled 'Recolonizations.' Larsen engages in an intriguing discussion of texts by Bernal Díaz Castillo and Hernán Cortés to illuminate the "paradigm shift" from "aesthetics" to "discourse" categories that Rolena Adorno observes within the field of colonial studies. Larsen quickly points out the danger of falling into imperialistic interpretive traps: "For does not the outright rejection of aesthetic criticism in the case of colonial Latin American texts simultaneously ratify, albeit perhaps unsuspectedly, the traditional colonizing perspective, in effect granting to 'Eurocentrism' the exclusive right to make aesthetic judgments?" (105). The essay on "Phenomenology and Colony" reviews the philosophy behind the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman's The Invention of America, and cleverly argues how the "theory of an 'invention' of America only makes sense to the extent that it is, or has been, misread and misapprehended" (115).

  9. Those working in the field of postcolonial studies will find questions worth examining or easily dismissed as Larsen points out his objections to the field in the following section, 'Culture and Nation.' Larsen cautions against entertaining a view of postcolonial 'cultural studies' that denies the disentanglement of culture and nation and that concerns itself with marketing an ideology at the expense of the subjects it pretends to bring to the forefront. This is
    . . . the question of whether cultural nationalism itself, even when 'overdetermined' by anti-imperialism, may not in the end render service as the ideology of a postcolonial capitalism more interested, finally in increasing its market share than in liberating the masses without whose labor, sacrifice, and political allegiance no national liberation is possible (123).
    Is literary study Euro-centric? Does postcolonial literature challenge Eurocentrism?

  10. Larsen ends his "reflections" on these polemical issues with a fitting subject: the plausibility of the existence of a Latin American postmodernism, and its relationship to cultural studies. Larsen defines postmodernism as a "rather clouded and ambiguous set of cultural tendencies in which the still residually hegemonic modernist paradigm remains the most visible" and reiterates the role of cultural studies (which he tries to redefine) and postmodernism in ascertaining a power that continues to market Latin America.

  11. The meta-level of the book is perhaps its most distinctive feature it is not about Latin American literature, but about the study of Latin American literature.

  12. Despite some lack of cohesiveness, Neil Larsen's essays in Reading North by South: On Latin American Culture and Politics bring to the forefront the complexities of reading Latin American literature and the problematic of doing so from a "northern" perspective. The analysis of the study of Latin American texts is this book's most distinctive feature, and for anyone with a scholarly interest in postmodernism, cultural studies, and post-colonialism, this book will prove to be a stimulating source for critical debate.

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